Tesla Wants To Enlighten Employees About Unionizing in Germany, They See It as a Threat

Stern covered how Giga Grünheide poses a risk to the environment and its employees in a series of articles that now look like just the beginning. The German magazine's reports made waves in the country and unleashed reactions from politicians accused of protecting Tesla, employees tired of their work conditions, and also the battery electric vehicle (BEV) maker. Its latest move was sending a message to "enlighten" workers about unionizing efforts. Many company employees took that as a threat.
Tesla Giga Gruenheide 19 photos
Photo: Tesla
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If the intentions with that "enlightenment" notice are up for debate, workers on sick leave have no doubts about the tone of the letters they have received from Tesla. The company urged them to present their medical diagnosis and relieve their doctors of their confidentiality duty. The BEV maker promised to cut their payments if they fail to comply. Dirk Schulze said that at least a dozen employees received this message. The IG Metall district manager in Berlin also said that this shows how afraid Tesla is of having its factory unionized.

Stern also interviewed Sven Jürgens about these practices. The Berlin-based labor lawyer said that they were unacceptable. According to the attorney, Tesla could be criminally accused of blackmail and coercion apart from trying to prevent workers from joining the union in illegal ways. It would not be a first for the BEV maker.

Our readers will remember Richard Ortiz. This former Fremont employee was fired on October 18, 2017, after trying to unionize Tesla's first plant. On March 25, 2021, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz. Elon Musk would also have to erase a 2018 tweet that asked: "Why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?" The BEV maker appealed the decision to a federal court, and we're still waiting for a conclusion. Ortiz said he would get back to his unionization efforts as soon as he returned to work. Stern reminded us that Tesla also fired "dozens of employees in the US after the workforce at the plant in Buffalo tried to form a union."

Tesla Giga Gruenheide
Photo: Tesla
If you do not recall the work Stern is doing, the German magazine made a deep investigation into all issues involving Giga Grünheide. It even placed two reporters as Tesla employees for a few weeks so that they could check firsthand if the allegations of safety hazards involving the Tesla German factory were true. Unfortunately, they were.

Stern disclosed that the pressure to achieve high production numbers forces workers to oversee safety practices. As a result, there are several cases of mutilations, electric shocks, scalding, and other health hazards. Giga Grünheide had 247 ambulance or helicopter requests only in its first operation year, or 1.27 per working day. The German magazine also said the factory's air is impregnated with aluminum dust, a hazardous substance.

When one of the magazine reporters working at the factory asked for helmets for her team because metal parts of the roof insulation were falling, Tesla just moved them to another area where they had no idea if the metal chunks would still drop from the roof. They did not get helmets. On October 9, IG Metall informed that more than 1,000 Tesla workers had joined efforts to unionize Giga Grünheide. Tesla did not take long to react.

Tesla Giga Gruenheide
Photo: Tesla
The plant manager wrote an email message to all plant employees stating they had to talk. André Thierig said the Tesla management had found papers from IG Metall members and that they were supposed to help union leaders persuade the company's workers to join the union. The manager said these were "manipulative methods." "For example, clear instructions are given on how to influence you in conversation or how to deal with counter-arguments." Manipulative or not, the deal is that unionization is a fundamental worker right according to German laws.

To convince workers to take that step, IG Metall decided to make an advertising campaign at the factory and agreed with the facility management to do that only during the break times of all three shifts at the canteens. What the union leaders did not expect was that Tesla would instruct the shift leaders to send all employees to a meeting at the final assembly hall during these break intervals. The plant management distributed free T-shirts and food for the workers while trying to convince them not to unionize.

We are now left to wonder if this "carrot-on-a-stick" strategy convinced anyone. In other words, if any worker thought it would be a good idea to trade better safety conditions for a T-shirt and a sandwich. It would be great if any of the employees had shared with Stern if they used the opportunity to ask for a safer working environment, but they apparently didn't. In such an environment, many must fear for their bread and butter.

In an interview in 2021, Daniel Rabe said that unions "always had to fight to preserve worker's rights." In other words, dealing with Tesla would be just routine. More than two years later, the IG Metall researcher may be quite frustrated: the German plant remains non-unionized. Several plants are not, but at least employees do not seem to have the same complaints that Stern reported coming from Giga Grünheide. In a way, Tesla's worker management is the best defense for unionizing. If it did things differently, its employees would probably worry about something other than safety and better pay.
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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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